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Highway 61 Discovered

The Times Magazine, January 1999

 

Of course, aging matters all the more when (like Cher) your life depends on good looks. Even those who are not locked in that particular prison may feel sad (as I do) that they will never backpack around India or ride pillion on a Harley across the States. 'I want, I want', cries the child inside the middle- aged person, and no amount of common sense will quieten those little wistful moans.....
Bel Mooney, newspaper article on being over fifty, 28.5.98

 

It's cold, heading south on Highway 61 from Minneapolis to Winona. The road unscrolls, monotonous and grey; the wind whips my hair which lashes my cheeks. The Harley Davidson 'Road King' vibrates and bucks at every tiny change in road surface. Colder, colder, a threat of rain - and the invisible hand of the evening gale knocks me back viciously, taking the breath away. At last - into silent Winona at night: deserted streets, people behind lighted windows....and nowhere to stay. Stiff-limbed, bum-aching, I wonder why I am doing this.

Bob Dylan has a lot to answer for. In 1965, when I was still at school, he gave the world the electric shock of 'Highway 61 Revisited' - booed and barracked for bursting out of his safe acoustic home to prove that you owe it to yourself to change, to move on, to rattle the bars of your own cage. 'When you got nothing you got nothing to lose...' But what about when you got everything? What about when you're nearly 52, like me, and afraid of speed and change?' Git your motor runnin'/ Head out on the highway', Steppenwolf sang in '68, the year I got married....And I heard it, but stayed at home.

So - to live out 'Born to be Wild' at last. To take the chance to discover what Dylan meant when he sang, 'Just take everything down to Highway 61''. To ride the legendary route on a legendary vehicle, and become 'like a rolling stone' for the first time in my life....Yes! The photographer Robin Allison Smith (who happens to be an old family friend, as well as an ex-biker) would drive me on a great rock n'roll trip - and endurance test, for a woman who had only been on a motorcycle a couple of times, and didn't like it at all.. It would also be a personal pilgrimage alongside the great Mississippi, the 'Father of waters' which Mark Twain saw as a symbol of the human journey - the soul rolling onwards towards the sea, changing all the time.

Harley Davidson (UK) hired the machine for us, from a guy called Dan Johnson in Minneapolis, who has a picture of himself with Dylan's son pinned to his office door, and told me Dylan's Mom lives just down the road. Minnesota Dan was almost as proud of Dylan as he was of his collection of beautiful beasts. This one was an ex-police bike: 1350 ccs of white and chrome, with studded black leather seat and saddle bags, and a snarl to melt your gut. That line I wrote about riding pillion on a Harley was a throwaway, but as we hit the road I recalled something that pinned it deeper. Years ago, when the children were small, my husband and I put the car on the train from Nice and disembarked at Calais, waiting for the vehicles to be unloaded, so we could head for the ferry home. A scarlet Harley stood among the cars. I couldn't tear my eyes from its silver studs and black fringes, nor from the rider and his woman - dark-haired and lithe, in blue denim, black leather and bandanas. They lounged and smoked, staring silently into the distance that was their destination. I gazed with envy, as my beloved children bickered around me.

On the Harley, people in cars stare. Little kids wave from child-seats. Once I was inside their safe, cosy world, the story-tapes spinning make-believe. Now (my children grown-up) I'm exposed to the elements, in a battered leather jacket belonging to the daughter's boyfriend, who'd painted it with a psychedelic design - perfect for a sixties person. Jeans and tee-shirts in a Waitrose bag stuffed in one of the panniers; no room for a bottle of perfume, let alone smart clothes. So what? No one to see. ('How does it feel/ To be on your own/ With no direction home/ like a complete unknown... ') And the bike becomes a symbol for a position in society: outside in the cold air, you are also outside all the 'givens'. Uncomfortable - but free. In a small town called Hastings, along a half-mile stretch, we pass the 'Minnesota Veterans' Home', six churches, and a graveyard full of shining marble and granite slabs. And I think - I'm doing this because I don't want any of that stuff. Not yet. We would be away for thirteen days, ten of them on the road. Eight states and around 1700 miles would demand a mean pace, making time for photographs too. On the first morning, relieved to see sun after the chill, we rode the Harley up on the levee which protects the town from the brimming river. I studied the map, and Robin clicked the shutter. A policeman strode over, pointing out the sign we'd ignored - saying 'No motorised vehicles'. I explained our mission: 'We're riding 61 all the way to New Orleans, and needed a first shot of the Missisippi.' All smiles, he said it was fine, and chatted about when he rode Harleys. Then came the first warning of the trip: 'You take care now. There's some real crazy people out there'. Thinking of all the scary Patricia Cornwell novels I've read, I nodded gravely. 'Yep', he said, 'They pull out, no signals, turn left without looking - I seen it all'.

Out on the highway, the farmlands of Minnesota blending into Wisconsin and Iowa: field after field, swathe after swathe of corn, barn after barn. It's beautiful (when the road runs alongside the Mississippi) but boring. In my earphones Bonnie Raitt is singing that number ('Papa Come Quick') about the farm girl Jodi running off to the city with a 'silver-tongued schemer' called Chico who smokes illegal substances and rides (what else?) a Harley. I mean - who'd stay home when that was on offer?

After a while the sun vanished and the wind roared too loudly to hear anything, slicing through the leathers. It was painful. I tried to take my mind off the chill by making hamster faces in the wing mirror: open your mouth and the wind puffs out your cheeks.The temperature plummetted, until at last we scuttled into the Variety Mart to buy another layer. 'Fall sure has come quick', said the sympathetic assistant, handing over a grey sweat top for ten dollars, 'Soon be no time to be riding a motorcycle'. That time's already come, I thought . When you've been riding for almost two hours and stop, getting back on the bike is the worst thing in the world. Buttocks numb; legs and shoulders screaming for relief. But you hit the road again, because there's no choice - clocking up the miles as far as possible before hitting Dubuque, Iowa. Then almost any old motel will do - because what matters is not the quality of the place, but the shower to relieve the body, then the beer to wash road dirt from your throat.

Nelda Bennett presided over her long square bar like a queen, dispensing Budweiser and warm chat to the regulars who won't let her close for a week's holiday because they say they'd have nowhere to go. Two greyhaired women sitting on opposite sides shouted gossip at each other as Nelda served our beers. 'The Old Shang' is, she said, like the bar in 'Cheers': 'We get a lot of old timers - some of them in their sixties and seventies, and maybe they don't drink so much now. They come in here to talk. The trouble is - I've lost so many of them'. She launched into a hymn of praise to the small town I thought dead and dull, listing the architecture, the River Museums, the bluffs high over the Mississippi, the art centre, the shops, the theatre: 'We have everything here. You should stay for a week!' I told her I like people who are happy to stay in the place they were born and go on discovering it. But I wanted to move on. You pass through places knowing there's no time to find out more, because you've got somewhere to get to and the road is calling. Nelda hugged me goodbye with a warning: 'You take care now. The further south you go, the rainier it'll get. You'll be running into Hurricane George'. All night the traffic on 61 rumbled past the Glenview Motel like a threat of storm, as if the whole country was on the road. I re-read Jack Kerouac's Beat classic before we left, but only started to understand the book when I was travelling myself. One passage especially: Kerouac describes '.....the strangest moment of all, when I didn't know who I was - I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I'd never seen...and I looked up at the cracked ceiling and really didn't know who I was for about fifteen seconds. I wasn't scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger.' Night after night I was to experience that sensation of satisfying alienation.

In the fifties Kerouac hitched a ride into 'drowsy old Davenport', thrilled to see the Mississippii, 'with its big rank smell that smells like the raw body of America itself.' He failed to find a lift out of the dreary town of civic architecture and emptinesses until a big tough truck driver stopped his rig, and the writer climbed aboard and escaped. I knew that impulse now - to get the hell out of these depressing towns, with their sprawling 'edge cities' of Wal-Marts, and shopping Plazas and Malls, served by fast food chains of Taco Bell, Abe's Steakhouses, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Wendy's Burgers, and so on and on to nausea-level. Moving on to escape, you find yourself trapped in the hideous cumulative effect. Dubuque, Davenport, St Louis and all the way along 61 - I was filled with despair. They have killed off the town centres and we, in our blindness and stupidity are following suit - with homegrown versions of out-of-town shopping centres and 'villages', all the same, all ugly, greedy, soulless.

'Where are we?', I asked the pleasant women in the Super 8 Motel - dazed with travelling, and the heat that now made my head melt. 'Keokuk', she smiled, adding thoughtfuly, 'Iowa'. It was there we met our only trucker, Nick Romanovsky, who'd driven down from Canada to pick up a load of steel bearings. Normally he slept in the cab with his dog, but treated himself to a motel room because he felt like the luxury. Nick admired the Harley, and I admired his rig - though Twister yelped up a storm when I approached. Nick found the half-dingo puppy abandoned 'in the high country, Wyoming', and felt sorry for him. The pup drank three gallons of water straight off, and now travels everywhere with his owner - 'He's a road dawg!' Nick said he spends more time with Twister than he does with his wife: 'Yeah - it helps my marriage!'

He had to go, but delivered himself of two dire warnings, to cheer us on. The first was how easily the valuable Harley could be stolen. 'Y' buy custom frames and custom crank cases with their own serial numbers. Y' steal your Harley, strip it apart, rebuild it with the new bits, throw away the old frame and casings - y' got yuhself a new Harley. Anybody asks, y' say I built it myself! Y' gotta watch that thing all the time'. A pause, then: 'You guys be careful when y' get to New Orleans... (a shake of the head).... That's a bad-ass place.'

An old man in a pick-up grins, giving the thumbs up. A bus-full of schoolchildren jumps about, smiling and pointing. Park the Harley and people come and admire. It marks you out as special too: part of a club. Right across the four lane highway, travelling in the opposite direction, you see three bikers looking like 'Easy Rider', who all give a laconic wave. Returning the wave, I feel cool. And why not? As we stuffed our few possessions into the panniers each morning I began to feel the lightness of freedom. My normal life is about work, admin., shopping, cooking, organising and (most of all) being there for the family I love. Now, unencumbered, I wanted to dance.

But you don't act the role of biker - doing it, you are it, for better for worse. We rode into St Louis on the ten lane freeways, and tried to find somewhere to stay downtown. Hotel after hotel was full - and I was treated with rudeness and indifference by women on reception desks, Highway 61 Times Magazinefor the first time in my life. Usually I arrive well-dressed, pre-booked, looking like I have six credit cards. Now I felt that even if they had rooms they wouldn't want me there - not in that leather with that matted hair and road-dirty face. I was a biker. After getting the brush-off yet again, I tottered outside to see a funky black guy in sports gear talking to Robin. Admiring the Harley he'd said, 'Hey man, just gettin' on that thay-ing' d give me a hard-on!'. With a friendly rabbit punch he grinned, 'Hey, you guys is goin' all down to N'Orlins! You guys is havin' fun!' Yeah, I thought grimly, like Mary and Joseph with no room at the inn.

Desperate, we rode back seventeen miles and stopped at a dingy motel called 'Spring Vale'. At a security grill I asked for rooms. 'Any pets?', he barked. 'Er..no!', I replied, wondering how he imagined a woman in a helmet might be transporting pets. Registration forms were thrust at me, at which I asked to see the rooms. 'She wants to see the rooms!' he snapped to someone else. After a while a woman led me to view a squalid, grimy little pit with one dim bulb in one corner. I decided I'd rather be exhausted and bedless; it wasn't good enough for my pets, let alone me. In the meantime a spacey women scented with beer and nicotine, who looked like Joan Baez and lived there, was telling Robin where else to go.

'Jes' foller the traffic', she said helpfully.Three attempts later we found a motel, then headed all the way back downtown for a beer, as a busker played St Louis Blues.

A biker is someone glad to lay down among the litter in a McDonalds parking lot to relieve the back. And who knows that it is more important to spend Sunday morning in St Louis looking for bungees to secure the baking leathers in a roll, than to visit the famous Brooks Museum of Art. All the things I normally require I left behind; all the cultural pursuits that give me pleasure I abandoned. During the whole trip the only book I opened was the 'Rough Guide' - although I did allow myself literary diversions to Mark Twain's hometown, Hannibal and to find T.S.Eliot's pavement star in the St Louis walk of Fame., where I laid down the leather in homage.

The music I wanted was the sort you hear through your guts, not your ears - and we found it first in little Port Giradeau, Missourri. The bar was jumping, local people cheering and dancing, the Waterstreet band jamming like rhythm n'blues had just been invented, and magnificent Ruth Suabuam ( a sempstress by day) stood up in scarlet vinyl and rhinestones and belted out Aretha Franklin. The guitarists, Bruce and Mike, told me how they'd started playing at five or six, and that the blues is a part of their tradition - 'where everything comes from'. A woman danced in tee-shirt with the slogan, 'Don't Let Your Fears Get In The Way Of Your Dreams' - and I slipped outside to dip my fingers in the big, dark Mississippi, feeling the ecstasy that comes when imagination and reality coincide.

Another brush with the law came one morning: Robin riding bareheaded was pulled over by Highway Patrol - 'Missouri's a helmet state' . He escaped a ticket by playing British and dumb, while I poured on some charm. It grew hotter and hotter as we headed south, but I was cheered by a piece of graffiti in the Ladies' Restroom at Applewoods Country Buffet in the middle of nowhere. It showed that anti-authoritarian versifying flourishes in the mid-south: Here I sit on Missouri pooper, Giving birth to a new State Trooper.

Crossing the State line into Tennessee we saw cotton for the first time, and were waylaid by a farmer called Linda who explained (at very great length) how it's grown and harvested. We searched for lunch in an empty little town called Munford, where we nearly tipped the heavy bike over - which would have broken Robin's leg. Stressed and hot, we took refuge in a cavernous unlicensed retaurant, festooned with fairylights, where ten or twelve people from the First Assembly of God were having a prayer meeting across the room. As we glumly ate gross burgers, they rose after the final benediction, carrying folders promising 'Heaven's Gates and Hell's Flames', and the waitress said, 'Ah trahed t'be real quiet for y'all'. Only in America, I thought.

Memphis was Mecca. At eleven I was in love with curly-lipped, pelvis-thrusting Presley, of whom Dylan said, 'Hearing him for the first time was like bursting out of jail'. As a teenager I discovered the blues and country music which had been such an influence on Elvis, who hung out in Beale Street when he was a poor white kid with a guitar and a hunger big as the sky. Now, in my middle-age I did the same, listening to the blues all day, on the street and in bars - deciding it's the best place on earth. But tough for musicians like Earl Banks (known as Earl The Pearl) playing two night a week in a small 'music lounge' called 'This Is It', which was far better than B.B.King's place. At 62 he's sad that he never got a recording contract, that there's so much talent about it's hard to make a living. His family were sharecroppers; he took his turn picking cotton. That's why, he says, you can only sing the blues if you've known 'hard times'. Gentle, wistful, he asked, 'London? Is that the same place as Paris, France?', then stood up to give us 'Every Day I Have The Blues', with heart and soul.

I realised my metamorphosis was complete when what interested me most at the theme park Graceland, was not the jungle room, or the shops full of wiggling Elvis dolls, clocks and lamps - but the motorcycle collection. Elvis idolised James Dean and Marlon Brando, and liked to tool around on a Harley, being chased by fans. Although there's no room for shopping on a bike, I had to buy one tee- shirt: Elvis astride a Harley ( a double dose of pure sex appeal) with the caption, 'American Classic'.

The Memphis Music Hall of Fame reduced me to nostagia. Carl Perkins, Elvis, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Otis Redding, and the other sounds of my youth....but all linked directly to the history of American slavery. The blues developed from field hollers - the sounds of suffering. And standing in the motel where Martin Luther King was murdered in 1968, now the Museum of Civil Rights, listening to Mahalia Jackson, I understood the connections, the responsibilities with a force that left me moved beyond words.

We left the city and headed south across the bleak Mississippi Delta, into a hundred degree blast like a hairdryer. Dust in the mouth. Grit peppering your face. And my mental soundtrack changed to mournful Robert Johnson and Howlin' Wolf, as I thought of all the freed slaves and their descendents who had headed north on 61, looking for work. Hitting the highway, being on the road wasn't a romantic thing: 'I got to keep moving/ Got to keep moving? /Blues falling down like hail....'

Into Clarksdale - the Delta blues town where Muddy Waters was born - which was once noisy with the sound of juke joints but is silent and empty today. Men and street corners. Grocery stores protected by mesh. We looked for the Riverside Hotel - once the hospital where Bessie Smith died after a car crash in 1937, now a rundown rooming house run by Frank Ratliff, known to the town as Rat. He sits on his porch all day, waiting for visitors, depending on passing blues fans as well as long-term residents who don't mind the ramshackle bathrooms everybody shares. All over the place are cardboard notices written by his late mother teling people bot to cook in the rooms. He told me she was crazy about Bessie Smith and would travel 'all over' to hear her play, so jumped at the chance to take over the place where she died. Frank shows the room itself - tarted up, with a big poster of Bessie laid on the bed.

Opposite the Riverside are streets of clapboard shacks. Outside one sat Frances Parker, half Indian, half African-American, and at 56 a great -grandmother. Excited to meet me, she summoned her granddaughter April - seventeen years old, clutching her baby Gabrielle. April lives next door with mother Deborah, and her two new children Mark (6) and Kimberly (5) , in other words, the baby's uncle and aunt. 'We all holler at each other', April says - explaining sadly that she used to be a pom-pom majorette, which was fun. She rushed indoors to for her track and basketball 'plaques', to show me proudly. All over now - though she's still struggling to finish school. The 'baby daddy' didn't want to know, and she says she has nothing to do, and no future. No jobs in Clarksdale: 'I'll never get out of here'. With Frances nodding approval I launch into a warm pep talk, pleasing them with the interest of a foreigner ('Are there black people there?'D'yall have wooden houses?' - they ask me about England) but sounding hollow to myself. Still - at the Clarkesdale library we came across an education programme for schoolkids: an old bluesman called Johnnie Billington was teaching them music after school, telling them, 'You gotta believe in yourselves, you hear me?' He should know.

We were glad to leave the dust of the Delta. By the time we reached elegant Vicksburg the landscape was lush and green. This is the town Lincoln called 'the key to the Confederacy', and which was won at a price: thirteen thousand Union graves are marked 'unknown'. No time to trace Civil War history here, but we did pick up another of those kindly warnings : the comfort of strangers. A waiter in Duffs Restaurant told us his mother loved New Orleans - but was wary: 'She has her clothes n' her makeup real nice, but always carries a wrench in her pocket book - to hit 'em'.

We were heading for one of America's most violent cities, yet New Orleans held no terrors for me; no more than the beautiful Road King. When you're riding you feel invincible - big tough bikers no one will mess with. By now I straddled the bike with the ease of a cowgirl, and was only miserable at the though of having to say goodbye to it in New Orleans. Road signs through the different states encouraged drivers 'Buckle Up For Life' - but where's your safety belt on a bike? I was never afraid of the road, even when Robin cruised the freeways at 70, and once opened up to a quick burst at 90 just to feel the Harley go. Ah, but a prize piece highway 61 discoveredof pessimism aaited us.....

We'd hit Louisiana, and the foetid swampy smell like old roadkill - when we ran into a very old black guy called Melvin Foster at a filling station outside Baton Rouge. He started talking to me, pointing excitedly at the bike. French was his first language; he spoke English with a heavy southern accent and a toothless mouth, which explained my difficulty understanding him. But he had a story to tell. 'I bought me one those thangs right after the war, comin' out the army. Harley Davidson, new, straight from the showroom, red and white - sure was beautiful. I paid eighteen hundred dollars for that Harley - all mah army money - in 1949. I rode him everwheres. Folks'd stare; they wasn't used to seein' no black boy on no moto-sickle. Rode him to Texas, and - man - that's where it happened. The front wheel wen' in the sand, and we wen' over, and the back wheel was still goin' round and round, round and round, and' every time I tried to get up it knocked me down. I was beat up by that thang!' He pulled up his trouser legs and showed me the scars. 'Round and round, beatin' me up! I din never ride no moto-sickle after that!' Hobbling over to his friend's pickup, he gave his parting shot. 'That thang gon' kill you'. 'Not today', I said.

At Graceland I'd talked to a 22 year old barmaid from New Orleans called Jessica Jaume, up there with her sister to avoid Hurricane George, which missed the city anyway. I promised to look her up when we hit town - and she helpfully drove back and forth over the bridge while her fellow barman Greg hung out of the window with Robin's set-up camera, shooting the two of us riding at speed. Friendly and hedonistic Jessica was like her beloved city - rattling off cocktail recipes and telling me about her therapy with the speed of someone who knows that all you can do when things get rough is enjoy yourself. I buzzed with euphoria.We'd clocked up 1800 miles, and felt we deserved a day of hanging out in markets and bars of the French Quarter, talking to buskers, goggling at naked breasts on Bourbon Street, and even doing the tourist bit of a trip on the Mississippi at last - on a paddle steamer.

Appropriately enough it was here, at the end of 61, that we met our first bikers. The New Orleans Harley dealer, David Clark (who was to oversee the return of our Road King to Minneapolis) invited us to a meeting of the N.O. Harley Owners Club. The members gathered with their beautiful mean machines, and their bandanas and shades, tattoos and grey ponytails. Fireman Mensy Plaisance told me proudly how all the bikers 'work for their communities'. I asked when he had his Harley tattoo ('Live to Ride. Ride to Live') done, and he grinned, 'Well, ah reckoned that at forytfive ah didn't have to ask mah mom'. His wife Priscilla, in 'Harley Ladies' regalia, told me their son asks her to babysit the two grandchildren, 'But ah tell him - Listen boyh, ah done that stuff an' now I'm goin' out to party!' A member of their club was was at Pearl Harbour, saw it all - and still rides his Harley. Born to be wild indeed. They were all there to raise money on a ride for sick children.

Then I had my epiphany. There was me, waxing philosophical about being over fifty, thinking myself brave to take up the Editor's Harley challenge - while these people had never even thought about getting middle-aged. They'd been riding and rocking, drinking and smoking and playing at being bad - since the sixties. One big family, they called themselves - with enough values to satisfy a row of British Prime Ministers. They'd had their kids, and their jobs, gone on loving their Harleys and rejecting cars - and had no intention of stopping. They told us that Steppenwolf were playing live in Gretna that night - just down the road from the Harley showroom. We crossed the Mississippi in the hot Louisiana night, unable to believe our luck. And there they all were: a man of sixty with a grey pigtail, a pot belly and a Harley tee-shirt massaging his greying wife's neck as she smoked and waited for the band; bikers holding hands with little children; all ages, all types, no hassle. When at last the lines came:

Git your motor running
Head out on the highway
Looking for adventure....


I felt the crowd's roar deep inside me like the roar of the Road King's engine, saying things don't stop, and age has nothing to do with the freedom to be yourself, before the iconic Death's Head claims you at last

The gig over, the New Orleans skyline dazzled me as we rode back, and I raised my fists in exhilaration shouting, 'Yes! Yes! YES !', into the night air, as the Harley snarled. Because this had changed me forever. I'd taken my ivory tower, love of 'things', and fear of travel down to 61 - and left them with the dead racoon on the side of the road. I knew I'd head for the highway again, and soon. Go back to visit April and her baby, and Earl the Pearl, the sweet, kind bikers - and all the strangers you meet on the road. Because the journey shouldn't be allowed to end, because the river goes on moving. And because you must never say 'Never.' EVER.?

 

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